At his already infamous press conference yesterday about last weekend's neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Donald Trump not only clarified his position on white supremacists (he thinks the group includes some "fine people"), but he also continually referred to the counter-protesters as belonging to the "alt-left." And while we've probably all become pretty used to the term "alt-right"—which, for those of you who don't know, references the racist, far-right part of the conservative movement, and is predicated on a philosophy of white supremacy—the words "alt-left" have only more recently appeared, and might be confusing for people who could easily think, Well, obviously, the alt-right faces the alt-left. Only, you know, it's not that obvious, because "alt-left" is a made-up term that doesn't actually mean anything, and is simply used as a way to marginalize the millions-strong movement of Americans who are resisting white supremacy, and the president who supports it, by creating a false equivalency.
But so! Where did the term "alt-left" come from? And who uses it, and for what purposes?
Whereas the term alt-right was coined by the movement's leader, Richard Spencer (he of "getting punched in the face because he's a Nazi" fame), and is thus a totally appropriate, though grossly sanitized, way to refer to neo-Nazis, alt-left does not have a similar backstory. Rather, as Mark Pitcavage, an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, told the New York Times, alt-left is "just a made-up epithet, similar to certain people calling any news they don’t like ‘fake news.'" Pitcavage further explains, "It did not arise organically, and it refers to no actual group or movement or network."
But even though the term doesn't have a clean origin story, that has not prevented it from being bandied about a great deal as of late, and not only by Trump and his ilk (David Duke and Sean Hannity are also proponents of the term "alt-left"), but also by centrist Democrats, who have been employing it to distance themselves from what they view as the "radical" wing of their party. It is a handy term for those hawkish Democrats, who are far more like traditional Republicans than Trump is, who seek to dismiss the liberal Americans who don't think the Democrat party is progressive enough and are fine with dismantling it wholesale—particularly if that leads to the enactment of things like single-payer health care and a universally increased minimum wage. When centrists and conservatives use the term "alt-left," it is a way to delegitimize those who oppose them, by signaling that there is a connection between white supremacists, who want to eradicate from America anyone who isn't a white Christian, and those who think black lives matter. This kind of misappropriation of language is as grotesque as it is common, which is why it needs to be called out when it happens.
If you're wondering to yourself what words you should be using to describe those people resisting white supremacy, don't worry, there is appropriate terminology. "Anitfa," which is short for anti-fascist, is a word that has risen in prominence lately. It originated in the 1960s and 70s, as a response to right-wing groups in Germany, but it has been used with more and more frequency now, and, unlike alt-left, is actually how many resisters identify themselves. Another way many of those who protest against the alt-right identify is via their association with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), both groups which have specific political platforms, neither of which is in any way comparable to the alt-right, who advocate for a "racially pure" nation, making any attempt to compare them an absurdity.
It would be nice to think that simply because people know the term "alt-left" was completely and recently fabricated, it would stop being used. But now that Trump has let those words leave his puckered, hateful lips, it's bound to become ubiquitous, like the words "fake news." Some people have tried to reappropriate the words "alt-left," by tweeting images of the original alt-left, the Allied forces who fought against the Nazis during the Second World War. And others have made the point that if being "alt-left" means simply opposing white supremacists, then there's a hell of a lot of people who would proudly carry that designation. Because it's pretty common now to shake our fists at the sky and rail against the insanity of our country and its leadership right now, but when being anti-Nazi is supposed to mean that you're part of a fringe population, well, that might just be the craziest thing we've ever heard. Until, you know, Trump does something else like this tomorrow.